Man of the people

Darren Taylor, managing director of ECO-Communities, explains to LCRN’s Paul Braithwaite why he is a very successful businessman running a social enterprise company which helps the poor and the digitally excluded, to a better life.

 

Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor, managing director of ECO-Communities.

It is said that what happens at school often marks a person out for the future.

Darren Taylor, managing director of ECO-Communities, didn’t have a very good time at his secondary school in Lewisham, south east London.

Darren had dyslexia and the teachers failed to notice his problem.

It was a mild form but he was not encouraged or helped to read and, needless to say, he fell behind in the class. He left school at 16 without any GCSEs to his name.

What he did have was IT skills, an acute grasp of figures and a girlfriend whose mother taught him to read.

His first book, Jane Eyre, took him two weeks to read because he had to keep stopping to look up words in the dictionary and Thesaurus.

When he finished she even questioned him about what he had read and discussed his answers. From this odd beginning, he found a love of books.

What did he want to do with the rest of his life?

Easy, he said, a job in the City with lots of money.

The careers master suggested he was punching above his weight!

Nevertheless Darren got his job in the City and worked his way up to become IT manager for the (then) largest marketing company in Europe.

“I was earning very good money,” he laughed.

But a romance foundered so he left his job and went travelling for a couple of years. When he came back he had a lot of debt.

“The poverty I saw in the countries I visited was unbelievable,” said Darren.

On his return, he found a job with a local council working in IT procurement and looking after the disposal of its old computers.

This is when, says Darren, a phone call from an old lady to the council changed his life.

She was living next door to a family who were too poor to buy a computer for their son and consequently he was falling behind with his schoolwork.

Did the council have a policy of selling its old computers to families who could not afford a new one, she asked.

Darren’s answer was a simply no! Too much hassle, the Data Protection Act and a contract the council had with a computer recycling firm.

But it did give him an idea.

He could set up a computer company selling new computers and taking back the old ones, which he could refurbish and sell to people like the old lady’s neighbours.

Darren became a computer reseller. In fact he set up the business with just £200 and in the first year turned over £180,000.

It was a win, win situation.

Groups and individuals would come to him with a computer spec. He would phone the computer company, get a price and it would supply the computers. In the meantime, the customers would pay him and he would pay the computer company when he got the machines from them.

And he would offer to take away customers’ old computers.

He started up a social enterprise firm.

He had a shop in Sydenham, south east London. In the shop he sold new computers and in the basement below he refurbished the old ones for sale to people and groups which could not afford to buy new ones.

And he reinvested some of the profits from the computer business into the re-use firm.

His next venture started because people kept coming into the shop to ask if he did computer training.

So he turned part of the shop into an internet café and started lessons for those who wanted to learn computing.

When his business took off, he employed a couple of jobless men and taught them all he knew about refurbishing computers.

Next, he advertised and started a computer repair service at the shop.

He now had so many old computers that he approached Lewisham Council and secured a second building in Deptford.

By now, he was no longer selling new computers. The computer company changed its sales policy and was selling its goods through supermarkets and not through independent resellers.

“That year I was set to turnover £1million on sales of new computers,” he said.

But Darren is also an “as one door closes, another opens” man.

Within 1 month he had outgrown this Deptford business premises and went back to Lewisham Council for more space.

The Council was unable to help but referred Darren to Hyde Housing, a housing association.

Hyde had space in a building it owned on the Pepys Estate in Deptford.

Darren wasn’t sure he wanted a building in “that part of Deptford” but he was encouraged to see it and he fell for it.

However, Hyde wanted too much rent for a site which had been empty for a number of years. So he offered to put in a library and café and use the area for training.

The rent went down accordingly.

For the opening of this Pepys Resource Centre, Darren invited and was joined by the Mayor of Lewisham and a number of councillors and dignitaries.

“This was the time when Lewisham was about to close a number of libraries across the borough because of funding cuts,” he added.

At the party after the opening, Darren asked someone in the council about taking on a library in Lewisham that was to close.

Darren then looked at the figures and put a business plan together.

In the end Darren took three: one in Lower Sydenham, one in Crofton Park and one in Grove Park.

The Council closed the libraries on May 28 2011, expecting Darren to marshal his forces to open them again in a couple of months. Darren reopened the libraries after just one weekend – on May 31 – using paid staff from his Pepys Estate library.

“It is all about revenue streams. I spotted 14 or 15 revenue streams in the Pepys Estate library.”

café
renting space
training
sales from books which are donated
old phones which are refurbished
WEEE waste sites
second-hand computer sales
and many more.

All his libraries have these revenue streams and in addition each library manager has an Amazon account.

Darren was manning the Pepys Estate library on a Saturday morning, he recalled.

“It was pouring with rain, and there was nobody in the library. I was on my own. I was sitting opposite the books for sale bookcase. People used to come to the library and donate books they did not want any more and we would sell them on. I started to look at them and found that one or two were signed by the authors and we had them up for sale for 50p or a £1.

Eco-Communities has also invested in Whitefoot & Downham Community Food project. Darren says it is basically a food bank with extra benefits. Debt advisors will be on hand to help those with debts while others will help with employment, housing, legal and parenting problems. “The food bank will be there almost as a back up with the real work being done to help people get back on their feet.” Oh! And we have just completed a deal for two community allotments in the area where volunteers and people who use the food bank can grow food for the project.

“I had my phone with me and I started to look up how much different books were selling for on Amazon.

He says he was surprised how much these often, quite ordinary, books sold for.

“We still sell books for 50p and £1 but now managers are encouraged to seek out the ones which will sell for a lot more.”

Each library now has a paid manager and one or two paid staff.

There are also 120 volunteers who work about 3,600 hours a month.

He is also asked to talk to community groups who want to do the same things as he is doing up and down the country.

Darren believes in empowering people. His company has taken on a number of trainees.

His philosophy is giving knowledge. He is particularly proud of one intake of six trainees. One is now the company’s financial director, another is training manager while another works at Ernst & Young.

Three out of six isn’t bad, I questioned.

“It’s very good but the more usual figure is about three in 10.”

So how does he recruit staff?

“Some of them come to us as volunteers with a particular skill.”

For instance, Tony Rich, now one of two right-hand men, is adept at writing proposals for grants. He was a volunteer but too good to lose so Darren made him an offer he could not refuse.

Recently Eco-Communities has stepped beyond its Lewisham comfort zone. (This is not quite true as Darren has two European project.)

It is running a brand new, state-of-the-art community centre complete with a multi-use games area in Bexley and another in Southwark.

“Community groups in Bexley can have the five-a-side football pitch for £10 an hour but others have to pay the going rate.”

He also took over a failing training unit in Downham, which came with an after-school club.

Big business for the training unit is child-minding courses and food hygiene and paediatric first aid.

The firm runs an after-school club at Torridon Road School.

I flippantly asked if he would be interested in running a free school.

“I have already registered my company for the free school movement,” he said matter-of-factly.

He already has a core of good (he emphasised) teachers from a supplementary school running in the libraries, and it would be easy to gather more who are fed up with the current system.

Eco-Communities is about to undergo a rebranding. The social enterprise has changed from a computer company to one which is also about libraries, communities, learning and more.

What about problems such as dealing with children of foreign immigrants who are unable to speak English and are seen to be holding back those whose first language is English?

“Schools don’t need to open at 8am and close at 3.30pm. There should be special lessons for those who cannot speak English. And there could also be special lessons for those who are falling behind in maths or any subject.”

How would you pay for these extras?

Schools waste lots of money on things they don’t need, he replied.

One last question: Would you like to take over the secondary school he went to if it failed?

“Oh! yes,” he said. “If only to prove to my old teachers how wrong they were about me.”

But he added: “More to the point, to give the kids now the best chances for a better life in the adult world.”

“Anything else on the list?” I asked.

“Just to say I wish I had not lost touch with the woman who taught me to read and I would like to thank her over and over again.”

 

 

Charity Number: 1118616 | Company Number: 4323551